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Conservatives Cling to Power in Dutch Elections

The Netherlands' ruling Christian Democrats won a slim majority over a resurgent Labor opposition as voters deserted right-wing populism to return to traditional mainstream parties in Dutch elections on Wednesday.

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Triumphant Jan Peter Balkenende is likely to remain prime minister.

In a closely contested Dutch election, the ruling Christian Democrats (CDA) emerged as the strongest party, gaining 44 of parliament’s 150 seats -- just two seats ahead of the opposition Labor Party (PvdA).

The narrow victory, which confounded the forecasts of election opinion polls, could see 46-year-old Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende return for a second term in office.

"I think as Christian Democrats we can be proud of what we’ve achieved tonight," a jubilant Balkenende told cheering supporters.

Spectacular comeback for Labor

Wednesday’s election also saw the opposition Labor Party, under the leadership of the media-savvy, 39-year-old Wouter Bos, score a stunning comeback. Bos said he was pleased with his party’s resurgence. "The voter has spoken, and clearly, for a stable, progressive cabinet," he told the Associated Press. The party’s parliamentary standing soared to 42 from the 23 seats it polled in the last election.

Labor was thrown out of office last May in a shock election that saw the Netherlands swing to the right as Pim Fortuyn’s LPF party stormed into power after its leader was assassinated just days before the bombshell election.

LPF loses

But this time around, the staunchly anti-immigration LPF, barely made a ripple and grappled instead with a massive election loss as its share of the 150-seat assembly plummeted to eight seats from 26.

Future coalition uncertain

Despite the obvious wins and gains in Wednesday’s parliamentary elections, the second in eight months, the shape of the next coalition remains far from clear.

Conservative Prime Minister Balkenende, who has pledged to return stability to the Netherlands after a turbulent year, faces a number of options.

He could return to a coalition with the LPF and the free market VVD party, though past experience might lead him to decide otherwise. The CDA abandoned a coalition with the LPF and the VVD last October after infighting within the LPF began to hinder the cabinet. Dissolved after only 87 days, it was the shortest-lived Dutch government since World War II.

Though Balkenende is believed to be in favor of forming a coalition with the liberal VVD, which polled 28 seats, the parties may not be able to muster enough seats for a majority.

Grand coalition for the Netherlands?

Another option for Balkenende would be to enter into a grand coalition with the opposition Labor Party, a combination that ruled the Netherlands from 1989 to 1994 under CDA Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers. But Balkenende has said he would rather avoid a grand coalition.

A Labor-led coalition led the Netherlands for eight years until 2002 and is credited with kick-starting the economy and introducing pioneering laws such as legalized euthanasia and gay marriages.

But Labor floundered under Prime Minister Wim Kok and was blamed for poor public services and for sending Dutch troops to protect Muslims against a Serb massacre in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica in 1999.

Challenges ahead

What does remain clear is that the future government of the Netherlands faces a number of challenges.

The economy, once a model for other EU countries, is showing signs of slowing down. The health care system needs to be improved, long waiting hours for patients have to be cut down and health insurance is crying for reform. The Netherlands also needs to rehaul its immigration policies in the face of an increasing influx of migrants and combat spiraling crime.

The latter problem of increasing immigration and crime has been a major focus in this year’s election campaign with almost all parties, including the CDA and Labor. All have co-opted a number of policies from assassinated populist leader Pim Fortuyn, who took a hard-line approach to limiting immigration, compelling immigrants to integrate into Dutch society and cracking down on crime.

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